The Jasons

One of the less well-known parts of the history of particle physics is the involvement of many prominent theorists in research (often classified) conducted for the U.S. military through an organization known as “Jason”. My advisor at Princeton (Curt Callan) would disappear for a couple months each year to La Jolla and I remember hearing about Jason from various people back then. Unlike at Harvard, quite a few of the faculty at Princeton from those days were involved with Jason at one time or another (besides Callan these included Sam Treiman, Freeman Dyson, Roger Dashen, Val Fitch and Will Happer), and this showed itself in various ways, including an unusual degree of interest among Princeton physics professors in the question of how sound propagates in the ocean.

There’s a new book out about the group, written by Ann Finkheimer and entitled The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite. It’s based on many interviews with Jasons, and tells the story of the group very much from their point of view.

Jason was founded in 1959, with funding from ARPA (now DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and was nominally associated with IDA (Institute for Defense Analyses). It followed on various other attempts to set up theorists as consultants to the defense department, attempts whose organizers included Wheeler and Wigner. Charles Townes was largely responsible for starting Jason, but its first chairman was Murph Goldberger, and it was his wife who gave the group its name (based on Jason and the Argonauts, in search of the golden fleece). Murray Gell-Mann was a member of the initial steering committee.

Members of Jason gather each year for a summer session of working on various projects, some involving classified military research, some not. About half the reports they generate are unclassified. For a selection of these, and to get some idea of the sort of thing they work on, see here. In recent years the group has branched out to study many topics involving biology, and to include many non-physicists (mathematician Fields medalist Michael Freedman is rumored to have been a member).

In 2002 DARPA stopped funding Jason, in a fight over an attempt by DARPA to impose some new members on the group that they didn’t want. This led to the group getting a new funding source: DDR&E, the umbrella for all defense research.

Over the years Jason has worked on many different topics, including anti-submarine warfare (thus the interest in how sound travels in the ocean), ballistic missile defense, adaptive optics and many, many others. It was most controversial during the Vietnam war, when as many as nine Jasons (including Sam Treiman and Steven Weinberg) resigned for a variety of reasons, from moral objections to the war to feelings that they were not doing anything effective.

The Finkbeiner book doesn’t really do justice to the difficult moral issues involved in Jason’s activities during the Vietnam War years. One early Jason report on Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia, by four authors including Freeman Dyson and Steven Weinberg, reached the rather obvious conclusion that the use of nuclear weapons in guerilla warfare wasn’t a very good idea. It’s not clear who if anyone at the Pentagon thought otherwise. For extensive background about this, see here.

Much of Jason’s activity during the Vietnam War involved attempts to set up an electronic barrier to stop the North Vietnamese from infiltrating troops and supplies to the South. This was partly motivated by the fact that it had become clear to the military that bombing the North wasn’t working, something that Jason knew, but was not revealed to the American people until the release of the Pentagon papers by Daniel Ellsberg. As part of the electronic barrier effort, Murray Gell-Mann spent time in the jungle in Panama testing out various pieces of equipment. For a very different perspective on the question of Jason and Vietnam from that of the Finkheimer book, see the 1972 article The Story of Jason from the web-site of Charlie Schwartz at Berkeley.

Many of Jason’s most successful reports over the years have played the role of shooting down a bad idea (like nuclear weapons as a counter-insurgency tool). For a recent example, see the Hafnium bomb, which is the subject of a forthcoming book entitled Imaginary Weapons : A Journey Through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld. It’s unclear what Jason’s current activities in classified military research consist of, but presumably counter-terrorism and how to fight insurgents in Iraq are two important topics. Despite the clear analogies with Vietnam, the war in Iraq has so far been a much less contentious issue in the U.S. One hopes that those physicists involved in helping the government pursue it will do better this time than the previous time around.

Update: There’s a review of the book by John Horgan in this week’s New York Times Book Review.

Update: For a right-wing ideologue review of the book, see the New York Sun, where the reviewer seems to believe the only problem with the Vietnam war was the “contemptible” people opposing it, “the ideologues on the left, who were busily dismantling the nation’s colleges and universities at that time.”

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21 Responses to The Jasons

  1. Tony Smith says:

    With respect to DARPA’s 2002 decision to stop funding Jason, a 13 May 2002 Mercury News article by Jim Puzzanghera at said in part:
    “… The dispute, according to members of Jason, stems from an attempt by the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, to force the traditionally self-selecting group to accept three members. Among the three are two executives from Silicon Valley, one from an Internet-related company and another from a computer firm, said one member of the group, who, like other Jason members, declined to name the individuals. The third person is an engineer from the Washington, D.C., area. The Jasons … said the three did not meet the group’s rigid standards, which include having significant research accomplishments, being a tenured professor at a research university and being willing to commit to a lengthy annual summer research session. When the group refused to accept the three earlier this year, DARPA revoked its $1.5 million annual funding, Jason members said. …
    DARPA Director Tony Tether declined to comment on the dispute. Agency media officer Jan Walker … said the reason DARPA ended its financial support for the group was because Jason failed to adapt to the times. … Walker said … ‘After the Cold War ended, a lot of the technology development moved toward information technology, and the Jasons chose not to lose their physics orientation to focus on DARPA’s current needs.’ …
    Steven Koonin … chair of … Jason[‘s] … steering committee … said … ‘We still write reports
    that have equations in them. I don’t think there’s any other group that does that …’ …”.

    If Koonin’s 2002 statement about equations is true, then I guess a Dark Age had, by 2002, already come to the USA.

    Tony Smith

  2. knotted string says:

    That report where they analyse the use of fallout radiation to form a 200-mile barrier to stop Vietcong attacks is a bit horrifying.

    Hans Bethe was advocating clean nuclear weapons in March 1958, page 9:

    “The use of clean weapons in strategic situations may be indicated in order to protect the local population.”

    They detonated a 95% clean 5 megaton “Navajo” at Bikini Atoll on 11 July 1956 and then 9 megaton “Poplar” – after Bethe’s positive report – on 12 July 1958. Low fallout data for “Navajo” shot:

    There’s a conflict between the scientific humanitarian approach and the military tactics of using napalm and agent orange in Vietnam. In Iraq they used depleted uranium shells. Is anybody interested in reducing the potential impact of weapons on civilians anymore?

  3. secret milkshake says:

    1. Clean thermonuclear weapon research was politicaly motivated. It was used as justification for founding the second lab (Livermore) that was competing with Los Alamos at the time. Livermore was sold on the premise of innovative designs and the clean hydrogen bomb was supposed to be one of them. In reality any megaton explosion produces a horrible falout.

    It soon became obvious that it is difficult to miniaturise the clean thermonuclear bomb enough to fit on top of balistic or cruise missile. Clean bombs have the natural uranium (or low-enriched) uranium jacket replaced with lead. The rule of thumb is that they have about 50% yield and at least 150% weight of the similar design with the uranium jacket. The use of “clean” nukes in civil engineering (digging ports, re-vigorating exhausted natural gas fields) did not arrive and army did not like clean nukes anyway – for deterrent purpose, the produced falout is “added bonus’

    2. The Weinberg-Dyson report against using nukes in Vietnam basicaly said “we would not achieve much by nuking the trail, the collateral damage (need to evacuate all civilians from the huge contaminated area) would be excessive and if someone gave a small nuke to Viet-Cong, our troops would be much more vulnerable to nuking than VC were to our nuking because we have large military bases and they do not.”
    It is not clear if Russians or Chinese would have given a nuke to Viet-Cong, in retrospect, so this last part of argument seems iffy.

  4. knotted string says:

    Thanks for clarifying the weight increase/ yield reduction issue with Bethe’s project.

    Why didn’t Weinberg’s electronic barrier work?

  5. Tony Smith says:

    As to Jason’s “electronic barrier to stop the North Vietnamese from infiltrating troops and supplies to the South” and knotted string’s question “Why didn’t Weinberg’s electronic barrier work?”,
    I can give an anecdotal explanation based on what I saw when I was at Ga Tech (superannuated grad student) during the Atlanta Olympics. The Olympic Village was in the center of Ga Tech. It was totally surrounded by a fence with electronic sensors with only a few well-guarded points of entry. The security force was USA Army Rangers, who were without exception very efficient, effective, courteous, and polite.
    A friend of mine and I were walking near the fence (outside) and one of us inadvertently touched the fence. Within seconds there were overhead helicopters and armed ground troops. They saw that we had not realized that the fence (it looked like ordinary chain link) was an electronic sensor system, so they told us it was a sensor fence and please don’t touch it again. We said OK, thanked them for their courtesy, and apologized for the inconvenience. They said, think nothing of it, we expected people might inadvertently touch it from time to time, and we have no problem dealing with that. What is driving us crazy is the squirrels.
    IIRC, the Vietnam Barrier was never a single united fence (too much “border”), but electronic sensors were placed (often by air drop) on the “boundary”. When a sensor went off, air strikes could be sent into the area. They killed a lot of tigers. (the Vietnam sensors sensed animals (including people) by such techniques as “smelling” urine, and mammal urine is mammal urine)

    Tony Smith

  6. knotted string says:

    Thanks, Tony. That gives me more respect for what Murray Gell-Mann was working in the Panama jungle.

  7. Lurker says:

    I’ve gone back and read old posts here to get my bearings. I find myself in Peter’s camp as a string theory skeptic, but in Lubos’s camp politically.

    Knotted string, you said “In Iraq they used depleted uranium shells. Is anybody interested in reducing the potential impact of weapons on civilians anymore?”

    No fighting force in history has gone to greater lengths to avoid civilian casualties than the coalition. They could have bombed Fallujah to rubble risking nary one soldier; for humanitarian reasons they went door to door.

    Depleted uranium is cheap, hardly radioactive at all, makes great penetrators, and is deployed by armed forces all over the world, friend and foe alike. 18 countries manufacture DU penetrators. Tungsten, on the other hand, is impossible to cast and hard to machine, nonpyrophoric, and imported from China. Depleted uranium is an innocuous substance if you don’t breath it or get shot with it. Do you have a better idea than DU? Send it to Rumsfeld.

    The late Serge Lang was mentioned. The File is a great read. I corresponded with him about it in the late eighties, and hoped to meet him during a visit he made to Britain where I was at the time, but the scheduling didn’t work out.

    Best regards,


  8. knotted string says:

    Thanks Lurker,

    I know that DU is little more dangerous than lead bullets, and in that case there are other worries than long-term lead poisoning.

    My cousin, in a British tank regiment, was concerned before his duty in Iraq that he was going to spend each day sitting beside radioactive DU shells. However, as you say it is ‘hardly radioactive at all’. The U-238 half life is about the age of the earth. Decays get spread out over a long time so the decays per second – Becquerels – is the number of active atoms divided by the mean life (bigger than half life by a factor of 1/ln2 = 1.44).

    I’d be concerned about breathing dusty air after a DU attack, of having a particle lodge in lung tissue and cause lung cancer. Is this risk trivial? Perhaps they should simply have a policy of cleaning up and burying DU hotspots under the topsoil after a war.

    Serge Lang’s File: McCarthyism from intellectuals at Harvard mentioned, on the Amazon book reviews page, sounds familiar…

  9. Carl Brannen says:

    If DU is such clean material, then how come the gov. is busily cooking up schemes to get rid of it safely?

    Depleted Uranium is not classified as “low level radioactive waste” even though it is easily sufficiently radioactive to be classified that way. For this reason, US laws have to list it separately. For example:

    “The Secretary, at the request of the generator, shall accept for disposal low-level radioactive waste, including depleted uranium if it were ultimately determined to be low-level radioactive waste,”—h011-.html

    Pure DU would have radioactivity of 330 nCi/g (12 kBq/g):

    But that figure is misleading because the decay products of U238 are also radioactive. Contrary to common sense, the maximum radioactivity emitted by a pile of recently purified DU peaks several thousand years after purification, not immediately afterwards. The peak radioactivity level is called the “secular equilibrium” level.

    This level of radioactivity is actually quite high. For example:

    “DOE Mixed Transuranic Waste (MTRU) is waste that has a hazardous component and radioactive elements heavier than Uranium. The radioactivity in the MTRU must be greater than 100 nCi/g and co-mingled with RCRA hazardous constituents.”

    In disposing of this stuff by using it in the military, we are doing something that we will definitely be called to repudiate and possibly pay for.


  10. comentator says:

    Correction to Lurker; Fallujah is a city more o less three quarters the size of New York and even if they want, they could not bomb it to rubble, that could have been impractical and expensive. And they went door to door not for humanitarian reason but because there was no other way to go through a city that size.

  11. secret milkshake says:

    Well, they used white phosphorus there… (And that stuff is way nastier than napalm). Calling it “shake and bake”.

  12. Ali Yegulalp says:

    Peter – I didn’t realize you were one of Callan’s students. What years were you at Princeton? I was there 1990-1995, also working with Curt. I spent a couple of summers in San Diego so I could keep meeting with Curt while he was busy being a Jason. I have to say it was kind of strange pedaling my rusty graudate student bicycle up to the big secuity barrier and telling the security guard over the intercom that Curt Callan was expecting me.

  13. Steve Myers says:

    Back to DARPA & JASON: beyond the tech stuff on electronic fences, etc. — doesn’t anyone see anything wrong with these sciencetist – pentagon ties? How much of it amounts to being a dupe or selling your soul for grant money & being intimate with power?

  14. Steve Myers says:

    I just realized I coined a new word with the typo “sciencetist”

  15. sunderpeeche says:

    “…anything wrong with these sciencetist – pentagon ties?” … “selling your soul for grant money & being intimate with power?” I keep seeing statements like this. But if scientists like Oppenheimer had not served on the AEC, who would (help to) formulate nuclear policy after WW2? etc etc Yes, one gets intimate with power. That is a necessary consequence if one is to have a meaningful influence on policy. To be intimate with power for its own sake? I have no doubt that it happens. Probably much more so by non-scientists. And they are better qualified to advise on science/technology/military issues?

  16. woit says:


    I was a grad student at Princeton quite a bit before your time: 79-84. Never got a free trip to San Diego. Actually, I heard from various people that later on, Curt was even more involved with Jason than he had been at the time I was a student.

  17. Belizean says:

    The standard joke about JASON is that it stood for July August September October November, because the task of writing up your summer research would invariably extend into the fall semester.

    I was not a member, but I briefly worked for a defense contractor with whom they were cooperating. I remember spending a long time working through the torturous math in a JASON report by Roger Dashen concerning submarine wake generation, if I’m remembering correctly. I had to go down to La Jolla to present my own work. Got there, attended a Dashen talk. But, after hearing him, I was greatly relieved that my own presentation was cancelled by some scheduling problem.

  18. Tony Smith says:

    Steve Myers Says: “… Back to DARPA & JASON … doesn’t anyone see anything wrong with these sciencetist – pentagon ties? How much of it amounts to being a dupe or selling your soul for grant money & being intimate with power? …”.

    An AIP web page at!5052~!0&profile=newcustom-icos describes a 1987 oral history interview with Matthew Sands (an author of the Feynman Lectures) which description says in part:
    “… Reasons for joining JASON; work on anti-submarine warfare, surface ship speed; … getting good data, counter-insurgency, Barrier Study (Robert McNamara), 1966; reasons for leaving JASON, 1969; its influential members; secrecy; relation of JASON work to academic physics work. …”.

    Does anybody here know what Sands’s friend Feynman thought of Jason ?
    Is it yet another issue on which Feynman and Gell-Mann had very sharp differences ?

    Tony Smith

  19. The Easter Bunny says:

    Another viewpoint,
    ”Thirteen of the nation’s most prominent physicists have written a letter to President Bush, calling U.S. plans to reportedly use nuclear weapons against Iran “gravely irresponsible” and warning that such action would have “disastrous consequences for the security of the United States and the world.”’
    …includes Edward Witten, professor of physics, Institute for Advanced Study and Fields Medalist.

  20. Pyracantha says:

    Have there ever been any women Jasons?

  21. Peter Woit says:


    I think that initially, back in the sixties, there were no women Jasons. More recently there have been some, one who is described in the book is Claire Max, now an astronomer at Santa Cruz.

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